Commuting in the Age of the Coronavirus
Last May 16, government authorities began a gradual transition to reopening some economic and social activities in selected areas of the country. As I wrote in previous columns, this is something that we need to do: an incremental lifting of some restrictions stifling the economy and the livelihood of our people, at the same time crafting and implementing protocols in order to prevent a second wave of infections.
The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases placed the National Capital Region, Bataan, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Zambales, Angeles City, Laguna under the so-called modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) while Cebu City, which was initially announced to be under MECQ remained in ECQ together with Mandaue City.
The MECQ has allowed biking and jogging for the population as well as partially reopened some manufacturing activities, industry, select workplaces, services, and malls. The IATF also announced that the quarantine classifications will change depending on the number of cases vis-a-vis the treatment capacity of the health system in that area.
Where do we go from here? Authorities should ensure that companies that have reopened are adhering to health protocols. It cannot be business as usual. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the IATF have issued guidelines and they should be observed by both employers and employees.
A tricky issue in the MECQ guidelines is public transportation. Private vehicles and company shuttles are allowed as well as tricycles, but mass transportation remains closed. The reason is obvious. Authorities are worried that physical distancing would be next to impossible in high-volume commuter transport services. But, on the other hand, how will workers in reopened companies go to work?
There have been many measures already employed by other countries such as Singapore, Greece, and Australia. It is important to look for lessons from other countries as we navigate a terrain we have not traversed yet. One measure is to stagger work hours in order to avoid the rush hour deluge of commuters.
Transport officials should strictly implement the wearing of face masks for both drivers and passengers. In Australia, they do not allow passengers to sit in the front row of buses to protect drivers from contacting the virus. Hand sanitizers should be readily available for commuters since frequent hand washing seems to be the fail-safe measure against getting infected.
MRT and LRT officials should provide clear visual clues in order to avoid congestion and violation of physical distancing. People should be guided by markers on where to stand while waiting and while inside the trains. In the medium term, the government should implement cashless transactions in public transportation. I also think that taxis and transport network vehicle services (TNVS) like Grab may be allowed as long as they only carry one or two passengers and operators install a divider to protect drivers. The Department of Transportation has already issued guidelines in line with this so I think we should provide — in a gradual manner — limited public transportation to the public.
While we are doing this, we should already be planning about the future of transportation. First of all, we should go full-blast to build an integrated transport system. I am glad that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) has restarted work on critical infrastructure projects. We also need to redesign our transport system in order to anticipate pandemics like this. Physical distancing will result in lower ridership and income for transport companies so we need the scheme to increase capacity. Maybe bring back the double-deck buses which were prevalent in the 1970s?
This transition from ECQ to MEQC to GCQ should give us time to imagine and build a new world for our people where safety and health are paramount; where people can go to work without fear of getting infected and getting their loved ones infected.